Oftentimes, the greatest strength of opposition is to say little and commit to nothing. But so too can there be huge political advantage in a government decisively using the bully-pulpit of power. Thus it was last week when David Cameron committed his party to hold an in-out referendum on the EU after the next election. In so doing, he left the Labour party in a bit of a pickle.
Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s chief consigliere, said recently , "we've found being courageous works for us …We err on the side of boldness much more nowadays." But boldness can work for Cameron too and Labour finds itself caught between supporting a referendum it doesn’t want or going into an election on a platform of ‘denying the people their say’. Neither position holds obvious appeal. Ed Miliband tried to get on the front foot at PMQs, but it was hardly his ‘no, no, no’ moment, and post-match briefings suggest we could be in for a drawn out period of nuancing before Labour arrives at its final destination.
But as right-wing Tories celebrate and the left prevaricates, is Cameron’s referendum necessarily the first step on the road to a British exit?
New polling by the Fabian Society and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung shows a fascinating – and stark – generational divide on the question. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of voters aged 18-34 say they would vote 'yes' to EU membership in a referendum. While nationally there is a 12-point lead for those who wish to leave the EU, among those aged 18-34, there is 32-point lead in favour of remaining part of the EU. In contrast, among the over 60s, leaving the EU has a 23-point lead.
Young people are also far more likely to identify personal benefits from Britain’s membership of the EU. Only 19 per cent of 18-34 year olds said they did not personally benefit from Britain’s membership compared to 51 per cent of people over 60. Forty six per cent of 18-34s cited freedom to travel in Europe as a benefit and 18 per cent mentioned social and employment rights.
Young people also see the benefits of the EU on the global stage. Fifty nine per cent of 18-34 year-olds who expressed a view found the argument that "co-operation between EU countries is the best way to tackle the big issues of our time, like climate change, the global financial crisis and international terrorism" convincing, compared to 43 per cent of people over 60.
Many young people also expressed concern about Britain’s standing on the international stage if the UK were to leave the EU. Forty per cent of those aged 18-34 agree that if the country were to withdraw, "Britain may become isolated in a world of big power blocs such as the United States, the European Union and China", compared to 34 per cent who believe that "Britain could use its own historic international links to punch above its weight in the world". Among over-60s the split was 29 per cent to 47 per cent in the opposite direction.
Europe, we are repeatedly told, is in crisis: economic, political and existential. This era of crisis has hit the left particularly hard, with the economic turmoil – originally heralded as the opportunity for a ‘progressive moment’ which would tame the ravages of capitalism – morphing into a crisis of debt and fiscal imbalance.
This presents a profound challenge for the pro-European left which Cameron’s announcement has made much more urgent. What is clear is that the positive case for the EU would be easier to make if the EU was better. The left risks further setbacks in Europe without a compelling explanation of what is wrong with the Europe we have and what is better about the Europe we want.
The EU was founded on a 'never again' spirit following the second world war, yet the arguments the first generation of European leaders made for closer integration resonate less and less as time goes by. A growing proportion of the electorate are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin wall, let alone the despair of post-war Europe. For a new generation, the EU is a way of life rather than a political project. It’s not necessarily a cause to fight for. But it is clear that young people are culturally and instinctively comfortable with the European project, and see clear benefits of membership. The task for EU advocates is to harden this soft support.
For New Labour, explicit pro-Europeanism was a core part of creating a modern progressive party, which looked to Europe to deliver on its promise of economic efficiency intertwined with social justice. But Europe is far from integral to Labour’s rethink in opposition, despite the current vogue for the German economic model in Labour policy circles, not to mention Fabian polling which shows the public understand all too well that the major political challenges of the day – climate change, financial reform, fighting terrorism – can only be solved through closer European co-operation.
Miliband needs to remember he’s best when he’s boldest and should not shy away from making a stand against Cameron’s politically motivated and economically disruptive act. Our polling shows that should a referendum become a reality, the state of public opinion is more subtle than many surveys suggest. There is a wide coalition of support that could be constructed, from younger people to business leaders; pro-Europeans should approach any campaign guided by a sense of hope, rather than fear.
Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review